Countdown: Charlie Chaplin’s best moments as “The Tramp” (#05 – 01)

…the countdown continued:

05) Celebration – The Gold Rush (1925)

 

Charlie Chaplin caught in a fit of glee from The Gold Rush (1925)

As evidenced by the last entry, I really love it when Chaplin surprises the audience with a sudden comical reaction, and that is also what happens in this scene. The tramp maintains his poise as Georgia and her friends leave, and then suddenly tumbles and whirls all around the cabin as he bursts with glee. How Georgia comes back for her gloves, which she of course forgot, and sees the result of the tramps joyous rampage is a magnificent touch.

04) Nervous Breakdown / Inside The Machine – Modern Times (1936)

Charlie Chaplin inside the machine in Modern Times (1936)

Not only is this a funny scene in the way that Chaplin acts like a crazed maniac, but it’s also a gorgeous display of art direction for its time once he gets sucked into the machine. It’s also ultimately Chaplin’s commentary on man’s growing reliance on technology, how the pace of life is increasing rapidly (and this was decades ago!), and how man is being figuratively “sucked into the machine.” So this is a great sequence that works so well on several layers.

03) Mirror Maze – The Circus (1928)

Charlie Chaplin in a chase sequence inside the Mirror Maze from The Circus (1928)

Just a very cleverly put together treat for the eyes and pristinely choreographed. Not so great for the laughs, but it nails Chaplin’s penchant for visual artistry quite perfectly.

02) Oceana Dinner Roll Dance – The Gold Rush (1925)

Charlie Chaplin doing the Oceana Dinner Roll Dance in The Gold Rush (1925)

In one of the many verisons of this clip on YouTube, one commenter says something to the effect of: “If there were one minute of footage that mankind can send out to outer space with the hopes of charming and winning over any intelligent life that it may come across out in the vastness, this would be it,” and it’s true, as this may be the single most charming minute of footage on any Chaplin film, ever. Not only is it charming on its own; but in the context of the film, it also captures so succintly the sad reality of the tramp’s situation alone in that cabin on New Year’s eve.

01) “Yes, I can see now.” – City Lights (1931)

Charlie Chaplin in the final scene from City Lights (1931)

When the girl and the tramp look at each other and exchange words:

“You can see now?”

“Yes, I can see now.”

…we know that they’re not just talking about her eyes.

I may not have loved City Lights as much as its reputation says I should, but if there’s one thing to be said about it… my god, that ending. It is quite simply one of the highest points in movies, a great example of beautifully subtle acting, and among the finest and most heartwarming moments in cinema.

 Marathon Score: 84/100

Countdown: Charlie Chaplin’s best moments as “The Tramp” (#10 – 06)

Since I’m in a unique position where the subject of my movie marathon is director, writer, star, and more of his films, and that the character he portrays in all films are the same (the tramp)… instead of the usual post-marathon awards, I’ll count down Chaplin’s best moments as “The Tramp”:

10) The Kid Prepares Breakfast – The Kid (1921)

Jackie Coogan prepares breakfast for Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921)

I doubt that many people would immediately recall this scene when pressed to come up with classic Chaplin moments, as it doesn’t immediately stand out. However, I feel that this is one of the more integral scenes in The Kid. This is where we see that the kid doesn’t play second fiddle to the tramp. That they aren’t so much a father-son relationship than partners who rely on each other for love and care. It’s more amusing and endearing than funny (although that blanket-into-a-poncho bit is quite clever). It shows the heart at the center of the story and captures the tone of the film quite perfectly.

09) Department Store Skating – Modern Times (1936)

Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard have fun in Modern Times (1936)

This was once my favorite scene from Modern Times, but repeated viewings have lessened its effect a bit. Still, it shows how graceful and clever Chaplin can be with his physical comedy. Nowadays, slapstick is relegated to toilet humor and cheap gags, so this is a nice reminder how smart and sophisticated slapstick can be. I seriously thought for sometime that Chaplin was actually skating by the edge of floor in this scene. Only later on did I realize that what seems to be the empty space where one could fall is in fact only a drawing and that Chaplin was in no real danger. That only goes to show the meticulous production design that went into this whole department store sequence, and actually throughout the whole film.

08) Seeing Chicken – The Gold Rush (1925)

Big Jim Hallucinates and sees Charlie Chaplin transformed into a chicken in The Gold Rush (1925)

A scene that has been copied and parodied so many times over that it has become such a classic. It’s a great illustration at Chaplin’s ability to get a laugh and his technical mastery of the craft at that time. To see such an effect utilized now is common, but to see it used like that over eight decades ago is impressive.

07) Fighting in the Streets – The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin refereeing Jackie Coogan fighting in The Kid (1921)

I don’t think any other single moment has made me laugh in The Kid as that where Chaplin tries to break up a fight involving the kid versus a bigger neighborhood boy, and then all of a sudden cheers along with the crowd once he sees that his kid is winning the fistfight. An excellent example of Chaplin’s ability to seamlessly and believably change from one expression/emotion to another so quickly, and also a great example of Chaplin’s perfect comedic timing.

06) Bonk! & Schadenfreude! – The Circus (1928)

Charlie Chaplin from two different scenes in The Circus (1928)

And speaking of Chaplin’s perfect comic timing, I have to do a cheat here as I cite two different, yet very similarly comedic scenes from The Circus. No idea what to call then so I’ll just name them:

Bonk! – That moment early on in the film where Chaplin and another pickpocket try to hide from the authorities by pretending to be mechanical installments at a carnival. Chaplin takes the role of someone hitting another person in the head, and unfortunately for the pickpocket, he is that other person. The setup is already hilarious on its own, but the way Chaplin reacts after getting one free hit after another on the pickpocket takes the comedy to another level.

Schadenfreude! – The scene later on in the film where the girl and the tramp watch the tightrope walker perform for the first time. The setup is that the tramp is in love with the girl but is stuck in the “friend zone” while the girl is in love with the tightrope walker. The girl asks the tramp to watch with her as the tightrope walker performs. The tramp reluctantly agrees after some persuading and acts incredibly bored, uninterested and unimpressed. Yet, as soon as the tightrope walker misses a step and starts to be in danger of falling, the tramp suddenly erupts with unbridled glee, claps, and cheers in what is one of the biggest laughs of the film.

 

Modern Times (1936)

Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) vs. Feeding Machine in Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin, having complete creative control over his films – being writer, director, composer, and actor in almost all his works – is undoubtedly the center in which all his films revolve around. He is the focus and he is the star. In only one instance was there a co-star who was able to match Chaplin’s on-screen presence, and that would be Jackie Coogan in 1921’s The Kid. However, I would argue that there is also one instance as well wherein a co-star was able to surpass his on-screen presence. This would be Paulette Goddard in Modern Times.

In the role of the gamin, Goddard’s youthful exuberance and fierce (almost savage) characteristic makes all the difference. She has such timeless beauty and a strong, captivating screen presence that the film never loses a step when the focus is shifted away from the tramp and on to her. Together, Chaplin’s tramp and Goddard’s gamin are magnetic – almost like Bonnie & Clyde as they run away hustling for food from one place to another.

The charm, charisma and chemistry of the pair however, only serve to enhance what is already a film of great substance. Modern Times, more than any other picture Chaplin has done in the past, concerns itself with significantly more political and philosophical themes as it delves into man’s relationship with technology. This is even made more poignant set within the context of The Great Depression as it gives Chaplin much material to illustrate man’s struggle to adapt. In one scene, Chaplin depicts the power that machines have over men when the tramp suffers a nervous breakdown as part of a factory assembly line. The tramp frantically tries to keep up with the speed of technology; but to no avail, and is sucked into the machine – a wonderfully intricate piece of production design – both literally and figuratively.

Throughout this – Chaplin’s final silent movie, and what some would say as the last film of the silent era – only certain bits of dialogue are spoken. Curiously, they are only heard when coming from some form of technology such as a radio or a monitor. Again, Chaplin’s commentary not only on the increasing reliance of people on technology, but maybe also a reflection of his sentiments on how cinema was then moving away from silent films and on to “talkies,” making the film work as a refection on change and transition in more ways than one.

In spite of all these different layers that can be found in Modern Times, Chaplin never loses sight of the fact that the film is first and foremost a comedy. He mixes in the hearty laughs with the witty social commentary, displaying his ability to create biting satire within his slapstick approach. Granted, the film is not perfect as it features some stale jokes (the one with the minister’s wife in the prison comes to mind) and it doesn’t quite reach the highs that some of his other films are able to achieve. However, Modern Times benefits from being consistently engaging, and it achieves this by being effective on so many layers unlike any other Chaplin film before it. Whether it be due to the humor, or the social commentary, his patented comic twists in the narrative, or simply because of the electric screen presence of its two leads, Modern Times proves through every scene that it is worthy to be hailed as one of Chaplin’s greatest achievements.

Rating: A (excellent)

City Lights (1931)

Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights

I don’t know what I wanted from City Lights. What I do know is that I was awed by what was considered as Chaplin’s relatively “lesser” earlier works (The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus) and that I most definitely am a sucker for romantic comedies. So upon revisiting the film in the context of it being one of Chaplin’s masterpieces and it being hailed by some as the greatest romantic comedy of all time, I was expecting something significantly affecting. Unfortunately, although there are still a lot of legitimate flashes of brilliance throughout the film, I can’t help but feel shortchanged after watching.

For a film that is consistently touted – along with Modern Times – as Chaplin’s best work and among the best films ever made, City Lights sure opens pretty weak. Instead of the kind of witty physical comedy that the world has come to expect from the filmmaker, the film dishes out a bunch of perfunctory slapstick gags as we’re introduced to the tramp once again. Yet even then, it’s easy to see that the the genius is still definitely there. In the scene, for example, where the tramp meets the girl for the first time; in only two minutes, with barely the use of any words, Chaplin is able to convey so much: That the tramp is initially cold towards the girl, that the girl is blind, that the tramp discovers she is blind and warms up to her instantly, and finally that she has mistaken him for a wealthy gentleman. That is the kind of concise intertwining of comedy, plot movement, character development, and sentimentality that I’ve come to expect from Chaplin at his best. Unfortunately though, it’s not something that carries on throughout the film.

The film progresses at an odd pace, with some supporting bits (with the tramp & the drunken gentleman) feeling like they run on for too long and the main narrative only popping up in parts. What aggravates this the most though is that a lot of the jokes simply fall flat. The huge rock being dropped on the tramp’s foot, the bottle of alcohol spilling on the tramp’s crotch, the lady sitting on a lit cigar, and the tramp swapping out the foreman’s cheese for a bar of soap are all just the worst offenders of a common theme that runs throughout the film: That the comedy, quite bluntly put, is cheap (especially for Chaplin’s standards). The really good gags are few and far between, with the best laughs in the film coming towards the end in a sequence where the tramp tries to earn some money for the blind girl by fighting in an amateur boxing match.

Where the film triumphantly succeeds is in the romance. It may not be consistently heartwarming, and does take a while to get going (primarily because of the odd pacing in the middle), but it alone makes the film somehow earn its reputation. The scene where the tramp brings the girl to her picturesque little home is so subtly beautiful and charming; and by the time he makes it his mission to earn money for the girl’s rent and to cure her blindness, one can’t help but be moved by the selflessness of the poor fellow. In typical Chaplin fashion, through a weird turn of events, he does eventually get the girl the money. Unfortunately, he also lands himself in jail while doing so. And what this sets up is nothing but one of the finest and most emotionally striking endings in all of cinema.

Severely lacking in laughs, but overflowing with heart, City Lights just begs me to reiterate what I mentioned in my review of The Circus – that maybe Chaplin was even more versed in the subtleties of human emotion more than the comedy that he is known for. Upon watching it for a second time, I think I have to put myself in the minority that would not consider film as one of his better releases; but hey, at least it leaves us with that magnificent ending.

Rating: B (good)

The Circus (1928)

Charlie Chaplin and Merna Kennedy in The Circus

Chaplin’s The Circus – arguably the least known and lauded of his “tramp” features – is a film that  succinctly captures the ephemeral quality of life: How one can fall in love and how that love can be smitten away from you in a blink of an eye; how in one moment you’re penniless and running from the law, then in another minute you’re a celebrity, then shortly after you’re obsolete, and finally you’re back from where you came from. The Circus is driven and revolves around this topsy-turvy nature; and as such, is also Chaplin’s most realistic film as it captures life’s most exhilarating triumphs and most heartbreaking falls from grace.

It’s a roller-coaster ride of a narrative; and being set in a circus, features some of the more physical gags from Chaplin. It also features some insights into the comedic process as the the tramp tries to incorporate his “accidental comedy” into the circus troupe’s more meticulously planned routines. The uniqueness of the film’s setting allows for some of Chaplin’s most magical moments, the most enchanting of which comes early on in the film as the poor tramp runs into a hall of mirrors to elude the chasing cops. The camera remains fixed on a multitude of reflections as the tramp and the cop run around chasing and running from reflections of each other in a brilliantly choreographed sequence. To say that it’s the best gag in the film and one of the best scenes that Chaplin has put together would not be an exaggeration.

Yet at the heart of it all, the way Chaplin’s character progresses in the film’s romantic subplot proves yet again that he is as much a sentimentalist as the comedian for which he is known for. In the film’s “meet cute,” the tramp chances upong a young female performer enjoying the breakfast that he’s been cooking for himself and chases her off. Upon realizing that she’s the ringmaster’s daughter and has been denied her meal, he develops a fondness for her and secretly hands her his meal anyway. The fondness soon develops into a romance; but once a dashing tightrope walker joins the circus, the romance turns into jealousy. Through all of the character’s ups and downs, Chaplin still manages to deliver the laughs and let shine the kind of truths that will make you nod and smile in acknowledgement. His ability to capture all of these changes in tone so poignantly in such a short amount of time can lead one to argue that maybe Chaplin was even more versed in the subtleties of human emotion more than the comedy that he had built his legacy on.

In the film’s final act, realizing that the happiness of the girl lies with the tightrope walker, the tramp devices a plan to resolve everyone’s problems as the circus caravan prepares to leave town. Everyone’s problems except his own that is, and the final scene sees the tramp left alone in the middle of a field where the circus used to be. So in the end, The Circus is ultimately a film that shows Chaplin maturing as a person as well as a filmmaker. It shows him having gained wisdom about the realities of life and the knowledge that not all romances need to end with a happy ending. That sometimes, the most truthfully effective stories are the ones that reflect life’s sad realities. It shows him expanding his technical prowess, reaching deeper into his repertoire of camera magic, and learning to deal with the nuances in juggling multiple themes yet still producing a cohesive whole. I went into watching the film expecting to surmise why The Circus has ended up as Chaplin’s least revered tramp film, and now that I’ve seen it though, I ask myself “…why?” indeed.

Rating: A (excellent)

The Gold Rush (1925)

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp looking on at the merriment in the dancehall

Just like most of Chaplin’s stories, The Gold Rush is a deeply humanistic film. It tackles the lengths men will go through to achieve their dreams and how much we are able to persevere and hope in the face of adversity. At the center of it all is the little tramp – the classic underdog of Chaplin’s most heartfelt narratives. In this picture, the tramp takes on the role of a lone prospector searching for gold. He ventures out into the Klondike where he eventually ends up stranded in a cabin with an escaped convict named Black Larsen and a burly fellow prospector named Big Jim.

For much of the film’s first act, it’s difficult to miss the many gags that has made The Gold Rush so enduring and influential. In one scene, Larsen and Jim fight over a shotgun; and while they struggle, so does the tramp as he frantically avoids being on the receiving end of the barrel. In another scene, in desperate need of sustenance, the tramp dines nonchalantly on a boiled shoe while Jim looks at his half of the shoe hesitantly. In yet another, Jim gets delirious from hunger and hallucinates as the tramp transforms into a giant chicken before his very eyes.

It’s one familiar gag after another, and the familiarity stems from these jokes being borrowed on over and over by comedies for the past 89 years. Watch the film in full and one will undoubtedly see scenes appropriated for The Looney Tunes, The Muppets, The Simpsons, and surely many other films and shows. Yet even though it features such a familiar set of skits; the jokes are still able to produce the heartiest of laughters. And the most remarkable thing about The Gold Rush is that the impeccable comic timing and charm make these gags even much more effective than the acts that copied from it.

Later on the film shifts in tone from adventure to romance. It still doesn’t let up on laughs; but instead of coupling it with daring and exuberant thrills, Chaplin effortlessly weaves hopeless romance and melancholy in its place. My one and only issue with the film is in the way the romance was resolved. Georgia’s quite a bitch, really. I mean, the only reason she crossed paths with Chaplin’s tramp is because she picked out the most unfortunate looking fellow in the dancehall to spite her suitor. It never felt like she actually cared for the tramp, and even played him for a fool when she discovered that she was in love with him. All the while the tramp was acting like her knight in shining armor in his starry-eyed romantic idealism, which makes the viewer empathize with the protagonist so much more. In one of the films best scenes – the dinner roll dance – all of these emotions come together as for that solitary minute, Chaplin captures the charming comedy of his picture, the hopeful optimism of his protagonist, and the sad realities of life. Which is why I was so disappointed at the ending where a string of contrivances eventually brings Georgia and the (now wealthy) tramp together. It just didn’t seem right for the film and she didn’t seem right for him.

So I’m not so much a fan of the romance; but still, The Gold Rush endures as one of Chaplin’s most consistently funny comedies, which features a wealth of iconic gags and classic cinematic moments. It’s a film where he juggles and hits more notes than usual: It’s an adventure, it’s a romance, it’s a comedy, and yet another proof of Chaplin’s timeless wit at capturing the many faces of the human spirit.

Rating: A (excellent)

The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid

There is an anecdote about a meeting between Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin in which Einstein commends the comedian by saying, “What I most admire about your art is your universality. You don’t say a word, yet the world understands you.”

To which Chaplin answered, “It is true, but your glory is even greater. The whole world admires you even though they don’t understand a word of what you say.”

What Einstein says is true, and how Chaplin reacts exemplifies his knack for sharp, truthful comedy. Throughthrough his nameless characters, Chaplin is able to let his viewers relate with the most universal themes in life: Love, loss, happiness, and sadness, while at the same time delivering among the most timeless comedy in cinema history. We laugh, we cry, and we empathize. The Kid is a film that is driven purely on heart – the source of our deepest feelings of joy and sorrow – and the reason why the film endures almost a century later.

The film begins with Edna Purviance as a single mother without the means to raise her newborn child. In desperation, she decides to leave the infant inside a car owned by a wealthy family. After she leaves, two thieves appear and steal the vehicle with the newborn inside. When they discover the baby crying in the backseat, they dump it somewhere in the slums where it is then chanced upon by a carefree tramp (as played by Chaplin, in his iconic character’s first feature film appearance). After a comedy of errors trying to get rid of the child, the tramp eventually accepts his fate and takes in the newborn as his own, seemingly undaunted by his hilarious inadequacies as a parent.

The story that follows largely involves the exploits of this unlikely duo five years later, and is most of the films’ source of comedy. Due to the film’s simple plot, the gags play out somewhat as a vignette of comedic skits surrounding the tandem of the tramp and the kid.  It features the surrogate father and son hustling through the city streets trying to make a not-so-honest living, then them roughing it up in the middle of the rural neighborhood, and also making ends meet in their small but cozy apartment space. What shines through the clever and witty humor is their odd partnership as equals, which sees the kid loving and caring for the tramp as much as the tramp does for the kid.  And similarly, Jackie Coogan serves as a most capable co-star, not at all playing second fiddle to Chaplin, but instead sharing the limelight in what is one of the best child performances of all-time.

The only thing that seems to stifle the momentum that the film builds throughout Chaplin’s exploration of this father-son relationship is when the mother comes back into the picture. While I realize the importance of this character, if there’s anything to be said against the story, it most likely has to do with the mundanity of the mother who seems to function mostly as a device to move the narrative forward through odd contrivances and coincidences. I guess such is life though with its quirky twists of fate; but I was far less interested in anything involving Purivance than Chaplin and Coogan, so I would still consider her a weak link.

Other smaller issues creep up towards the ending such as maybe that dream sequence seemed out of place (it felt more like a device to showcase some cool camera tricks than anything else) or that the ending of the film felt a little too abrupt. In the end though, Chaplin’s ability to deftly balance slapstick and melodrama in a neat package wins over anything that could said about The Kid. Here is a film that knows exactly what it’s set out to do: It opens with the following words: “A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear” – and that is exactly what we get.

Rating: B+ (great)